This story originally published on my separate blog on 2/19/2018. The concept was simple: dip my toe back into fiction writing. So I set a timer for two hours, stopping it with ten minutes to spare so I could edit for a second before publishing. It still came out pretty trash, but you have to restart somewhere.
"What happened to the last version? The one with all the teal?"
"You told me it was too bright. This one is more of a dark tourmaline."
"Yeah, get rid of that. Make it teal."
"The ocean isn't actually teal, though."
"And the sky isn't blue. Just do it."
Stanley nodded his head as he turned the screen off on two weeks of work. It didn't matter, of course, since Jake was gone.
After finishing his Masters in Aesthetic Design from a prominent school for that sort of thing, Stanley had been thrust into the world realizing that training does not always lead to a job. As he bumbled his way around for a few years exchanging marijuana for a night's tolerance by intellectuals, Stanley eventually had to settle for a handout when it came time for a career. Determined that no son of hers would be without purpose, his mother had called in the largest favor she had ever asked and created a government job with one simple task: design the end of the world.
He remembered asking Jake the first day if he would be creating cautionary tales, already thinking what Rothko-inspired reds he could use for the mushroom clouds. Stanley remembered a professor telling him once in a crit that the death of all things brings out the flavor in art by loosening what was societally acceptable, and he figured that was a good place to start. Jake had clarified immediately that he would not be dealing with the unlimited creativity of total destruction.
"No, see, that's not what we want. We want you to make something we can put on the... listen, did you see that mess in Hawaii? What went wrong there was, improper messaging. We told the people to find cover, but everybody knew they were going to be radioactive dirt in fifteen minutes. People started declaring their love, running to underground parking lots, just going wild. If that was how the vacation capitol of the US reacted, imagine how out of control Cleveland would get when they heard about their incoming doom. If we ever had to deal with that sort of social fallout..."
"So, your job is not to warn people about their death. Your job is to help them deal with their death. We want you to create the sunset they can float away on, something that makes them think about the great life they've had and how it is now ending peacefully. We'll give you the demographics."
Admittedly, Stanley had felt like a perverse Andy Warhol for a while, smugly watching Coke ads and reading self-help books as "market research." The pride of finally realizing himself as the literal opium of the people made Stanley overly bold in his first drafts, creating great epics that were simply unable to be broadcasted. Allusions to the great works of Hemingway and Philip Roth adorned massive public banners that were to be unfurled at a given command, confidently asserting that life was beautiful but usually needed a dramatic cutoff to reach its zenith.
Surprisingly, these did not go over well with Jake.
Shaking his head, muttering. "Okay, let's make this simple. No murals. No flashmobs. No performance art. Television. Maybe radio, but probably not. Possibly even an app. Actually, yeah, scratch the rest. Let's make it a video that's just preloaded and hidden on your phone, everybody has one of those. See, I'm already making your job easier." Hanging up.
Admittedly, Stanley's experience was more with two-dimensional design than video art. But, great art defies all expectations, and he was even starting to believe in this cause. Non-profit work had always been tangentially important to him, but for the first time in his life Stanley was now actually directly helping those who needed it.
Playing to his strengths, Stanley created static scenes to placate the dying. For the coastal people, he made a lush prairie filled with grazing horses. On the fence sat two figures straight out of American Gothic, gazing softly at the rising mountain in the distance. He had originally had them staring over a much longer plain until Jake reminded him that an empty horizon would only remind people of the fire that would soon fill the sky. Mountains protected the people from psychic threat, and that was good enough. For the inland market, Stanley crafted the perfect coastline. After an unsuccessful period trying to draw inspiration from Hollywood, he finally landed on the primary source of idealistic beach photos: Instagram. A composite of Cabo, Dover, and various fjords made his beaches geographically impossible, but that only seemed to please Jake more. Aside from the teal thing, he hardly had to change anything at all.
Though all the scenes were visually different, Stanley planned to lay in a constant dialogue track. The quotes he had researched went by the wayside nearly immediately; Jake wanted people to fade, not rise. A script he had created went a little farther, getting all the way to auditions for voice actors before Jake took issue with the phrase "the end" playing a pivotal part in the final section.
"What I need you to do is let the people know they are dead without actually telling them they didn't make it. Does that make sense?"
Stanley had always thought of himself as relishing impossible tasks, like finishing a paper in under a week. Going back to his roots, Stanley locked himself in a room with black coffee and a radio playing Bon Iver and Bob Dylan on repeat. As the anxious tension built through the hours, Stanley began getting more and more desperate. Was he unable to save the end of the world? Was he going to fail, even here?
Turning to desperation, he just started nonsensically spraying words into a Word document. He wrote about love, life, success, failure, meaning, the relics of old age spilled from a young mind. His words grew until they were pages, and those pages turned into a flurry of dialogue recorded into his webcam. Thirty-six hours after locking himself in, he sent a triumphant email to Jake with the attached audio files of unadulterated millennial rambling and finally fell asleep.
It's always a strange experience waking up to your own voice, especially when it is coming from the phone on your nightstand. Rubbing his eyes and seeing a mountainous prairie. Feeling the A/C shutting down.
The most recent message in his inbox was a simple one from Jake: "This is not what I was looking for. Enjoy yourself."